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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Millennials, internet aren’t source of nation’s polarization

In this Jan. 5, 2011, file photo, millennial Tyrell Coley, 21, holds his iPhone displaying his Twitter account in the Queens borough of New York. (Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

As a card-carrying baby boomer, I naturally ascribe all the things wrong with politics to two things.

1. Millennials

B. The internet

It’s not that I pine for the days of smoke-filled rooms and long lines at the polling station on Election Day like some of my contemporaries. It’s just that I’m sure that we can’t be the cause of the polarization in the country. After all, God knows there wasn’t any polarization when we were young.

Unless, of course, you count the Civil Rights movement. Or Vietnam. Or Watergate. To which I would say none of those were our fault. They were all left over from, or caused by, previous generations.

From this political moral high ground, I have looked around and concluded that the fault lies elsewhere. Like all previous generations, I have decided to blame the generation of my progeny, the millennials, because some of them make it so easy.

After all, it was a millennial who came to the Legislature a few years ago to argue that being forced to put a stamp on a mail-in ballot was his generation’s version of the poll tax and possibly more onerous, because he and many of his contemporaries at the University of Washington had no idea where they could purchase a stamp.

It is millennials who usually have the lowest voter turnout, despite being targeted by such campaigns as Rock the Vote, and the lowest registration rate, despite the fact that they can register online and by mail, which is something their parents had to do in person at their age.

The internet, with its plethora of views and spews, seems like the obvious sledgehammer banging on the wedge pushing apart the fissures in the body politic. Why, a generation ago, a neo-Nazi wannabe might have to travel to Hayden to find like-minded lunatics. Now one need only type “alt-right websites” into the Google search box and get 657,000 options in the comfort of one’s basement.

But what I cannot blame on millennials or the internet, according to a recent study, is the nation’s political polarization.

Three researchers looked at different measurements of polarization that have been tracked going back to 1996. They sliced and diced numbers based on different age groups, and for use of the internet in general and social media in particular. They factored in regions of the country, education levels, gender and race, and came up with a mathematical formula with some Greek letters for variables that I’m not even going to pretend to understand.

But Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro – the authors of “Greater Internet use is not associated with faster growth in political polarization among U.S. demographic groups” – are from Stanford University, so I’ll take their word for it.

What they found, not surprisingly, is that internet use has gone up in each presidential election year through 2012, with those in the 18-39 cohort always ahead of those 40-64, who are usually way ahead of those over 65. Internet use continued to go up for those 18-39 for 2016, but it actually dropped slightly for the other groups.

The polarization levels for the different age groups varied with different elections. For the 18-39 set, it went down a bit in 2000, up for the next two presidential elections, then down slightly for 2012 and leveled off for last year’s election. It climbed slowly for the 40- to 64-year-olds through 2012, then slacked off a bit. It was up and down for those over 65 until 2012, when it leveled off.

But the key thing is that it was always higher for those over 65 than for the other two age groups. Those who were ages 18 to 39 were always below the average for the population as a whole.

It may come as no surprise that men are consistently more polarized then women, regardless of the age bracket.

Because they were looking at the age of voters in a particular election, the youngest group in 1996 was not the same as the youngest group in 2016. When they look at it by the year voters were born, those born between 1915 and 1935 tended to hit their peak of polarization in 2012, and slacked off by last year. Those born between 1935 and 1954 – the ones born between the middle of the Great Depression and the first half of the Baby Boom – have been getting more polarized all along. The second half of the Baby Boom and first part of Gen X are catching up to the group ahead of them. Those born between 1975 and 1998, which would be the last birth year for voting in the 2016 election, have fluctuated pretty wildly but weren’t as polarized last year as the other groups.

All this backs up the title of their study, that internet use isn’t tied to the growth in polarization, and old folks are more polarized than the young.

It may soon become the new theory in politics, that cranky old people are responsible for political polarization, maybe because they don’t know how to work the remote control well enough to switch channels when the attack ads come on during campaign season.

It’s just a thought. Not sure how the folks from Stanford could test for it.